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Keynote at the presentation of the Extreme Cities Project (in cooperation with Columbia University) Audi Urban Future Initiative, New York

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It’s my great pleasure to welcome you here to this fantastic location in this amazing city! More than eight million people are living in New York City. So when we talk about the issues and challenges presented by urban life, New Yorkers are the experts.

As you may know, the goal of the Audi Urban Future Initiative, is to explore the relationship between mobility and the city to envision urban life in the future. We’re in an excellent place to do this. Let’s just look at the building that’s hosting this event!

There was a different building in this place before, you know. And it had to be replaced at the end of the last millennium. Why? Was it broken down? Damaged beyond repair?


From what I understand, the University built this new place to make sure that people can meet more frequently, exchange information faster, and make connections more easily.  What has happened to the infrastructure of this location and this building, is now also happening to the mobile infrastructure of our cities. It needs to be rethought.

Our economies thrive because cities manage to bring together people with different knowledge and perspectives. But the combination of urban infrastructure and individual mobility has been so successful, that it is creating a crisis for the future of mobility. Whether you look at New York, or New Delhi: In many metropolitan areas, the average car speed during rush hour is a mere eleven miles per hour. That’s about the same as horse-drawn carriages – 200 years ago. In Shanghai, people spend an average of 90 minutes in traffic jams every day.

What does this mean? We have created an incredible complex and dense form of mobility that challenges the very things we do. Audi will play an active role in finding solutions. We’re a brand that believes in “Vorsprung” – a German word that means being ahead, being progressive.  And that “Vorsprung” can’t just be in the materials we use, or the engines we build. It has to include new solutions for the needs of the people and the needs of the cities they live in. That’s why we started the Audi Urban Future Initiative in 2009. To explore, understand, and improve the relationship between cars and cities. Much like a radar system, the initiative enables us to detect and anticipate changes, filter and analyze them, and then utilize what we have learned to create sustainable mobility solutions.

So far, we have focused mainly on a time horizon extending to 2030, creating visions for the near future. We are pleased to have the winners of last year’s award with us today: The U.S.-based Höweler + Yoon Architecture. They impressed the international jury with their “Shareway” proposal. A multi-modal mobility system designed for that massive urban area that stretches from Boston to Washington. It’s a fascinating plan to transform the mobility infrastructure that connects and shapes this Megalopolis.

Concepts like “Shareway” are courageous, they are necessary, and sometimes, for us as a car manufacturer, also a little bit scary. Because the solutions envisioned there happen on a level that’s not in the reach of the traditional way in which we build cars.

Which brings us here: To the collaboration with Columbia University, and to the “Extreme Cities” research.

I am especially thrilled that we have been able to get Professor Mark Wigley and his unique team from Columbia University on board to undertake this journey with us.

We could not have hoped to collaborate with a more renowned and cutting-edge research institution. I met Mark in Istanbul last year – and we shared a lot of ideas there. We also agreed that we should look even further ahead. If the Audi Urban Future Initiative so far is examining the next 10-20 years, the Extreme Cities Project is developing scenarios for the next 50. 50 years!

Some might say that’s too far out. But when we talk about urbanity or traffic infrastructure, 50 years is really not that far away at all. Take New York’s famous street grid. Invented in 1811. And it is still defining traffic in this city. Eisenhower’s highway act just turned 50 a couple of years ago. But it is responsible for the backbone of Americas infrastructure that we use every day.

What Prof. Wigley and his team are doing, is defining a potential urban future.

Because, we at Audi we want to understand the issues and opportunities which the cities of the future might create. Before they become a reality. For the past hundred years, the automotive industry has been developing its products more or less independent of their surroundings. This is no longer a sustainable strategy.

As a car maker, we face a lot of new challenges – all due to the significant changes in rapidly expanding urban areas. We know the world will add about 1 billion people until 2025 and another billion until 2050. Most of them will find opportunities and happiness in cities – very big cities. And hand in hand with this densification, complexity also increases.

Think about it like this. The urban capacities that we built over the last 4000 years, will have to double in only the next 40 years.

None of us: Neither city planners, nor architects, nor car manufacturers, will be able to do this alone. To shape future mobility, we need to embrace this complexity and make sure it can progress. Many people are skeptical about this density, but I think humanity has proven over and over again, that it shines when people come together and share spaces and information.

Let me give you an example of a town from my home country. At the beginning of the 15th century, the city of Florence grew very rapidly. Streets were changed. Houses were torn down. If you would read letters from that time, you’d see that the people of Florence were proud of their city. But they also complained about the traffic, the noise, and the chaos. However, out of the new density created by all these new urbanites; out of this complexity sprang the marvelous renaissance.

This is not unlike the history and emergence of New York. And it is also what is transforming cities across the globe, as we speak. More and more individuals want their own fair share of the advantages of dense urban space. The only way this is possible lies in transforming our cities and our transportation means: To manage this new density without simply piling on top of what we already have.

For Audi, it is important to envision our products as solutions. The challenge is to design the forms of a truly mobile future. And for this to succeed, the focus needs to be on people. We asked Mark Wigley to identify a set of hypotheses defining factors that would become the driving force behind life in the cities of tomorrow. Over the course of two semesters, Mark and his team have conducted research and brainstorming sessions and experiments. Here’s how they describe it – I quote – “to anticipate the cities of half a century from now and beyond”. Unquote.

Looking at life in the year 2050, the “Extreme Cities Project” argues that it is in cities where people find the greatest potential. We should therefore flip our perception and see the city of the future not only with its problems, but with its assets. On behalf of Columbia University and Audi, I would like to invite you to join us on a journey into the world of our grandchildren, and share the team’s five hypotheses with you.

The city of the future will be defined by:

  • Transgenerational Capacity
  • Asymmetry
  • Complexity
  • Migration
  • Generosity

Let me start with the first hypothesis: Transgenerational Capacity. Especially when a person is young, it can be difficult to imagine ever getting old – much less what life will be like when we reach old age. Where will we live? Who will live with us? Will we still be mobile? None of these are easy questions to answer.

But we can see that the answers are better, when people both old and young are embedded in common networks, common spaces. A dense urban environment makes many things easier: getting around, having access to health care, participating in regular social interaction and so on. While the last 100 years have often seen a separation of generations the city of the future will be successful if it delivers “Transgenerational Capacity”.

Let’s move to the second hypothesis: Asymmetric Mobility. In the future city we will always have a multitude of mobility options. You can use the subway, a taxi, your car, a shared car or you might walk or bike to the place you want to go to. And where you want to go might change from day to day. You might not go to the office every day. Or you might change the hours of your commute based on traffic situations.

This Asymmetry describes a very different image of the city than the model used by transportation engineers back in the 1960s, who modeled our movement in city based on symmetrical commuting routes. 9 to 5. To work and back.

Which leads me to the third hypothesis: Complexity. If you look out of these windows, you can see all these incredible buildings surrounding us, the buzz of the streets below, and the fast and continuous movement of people… it isn’t difficult to imagine that the city is the most complex entity humans have ever created.

This complexity demands massive amounts of resources and intellectual commitment. When civilizations fail to meet these demands, they get weaker. But when they do meet the demands, cities become hubs of great vitality. They allow and create a mind-boggling amount of exchanges – the exchange of goods, the exchange of ideas, etc.

This hypothesis holds that future cities will be much more complex than the ones we live in today. We will need to find ways to manage this productively.

Hypothesis number four is about Migration. When thinking about migration, the Big Apple is a perfect example: Just think of the countless immigrants who arrived here by ship in the past century or so. All of them were welcomed by the Statue of Liberty and then moved on to where ever it was they wanted to go. But migration is not simply a one-way redistribution of people from rural to urban areas. In the extreme city of the future, it is a constant condition.

Take me, for example: I’m an Italian who has, so far, lived and worked in ten different countries – including Germany. You could say I am a migrant worker, too. This constant flux of people creates mobility demands that cannot be answered by highways from downtown to suburbia. It asks how cities are connected to a global stream of people who are on the move. The cities of the future will provide options and answers for all kinds of migrants.

The last hypothesis for the city of the future might be a surprising one: Generosity.

I think it is very important. We often talk about cities only in terms of numbers.

People, traffic, business, even crime. But a simple gesture of generosity can set into motion a series of actions that are unpredictable.

You might remember the movie “Pay it Forward”, where the concept of making a small gesture out of kindness has a huge positive impact in the end. The fifth hypothesis says that even 50 years from now, cities will have to be more than just efficient living machines. Instead, even the megacities of tomorrow need to offer opportunities for generous surprises like: community gardens, which offer the harvest to people in need, or volunteer based urban networks, that deliver services to the aging, or persons with limited mobility.

As you can see the Extreme City hypotheses outline challenges we might be facing a few decades down the road. They also allow us to start thinking about answers today.

The basic requirements for us to capture these opportunities are simple:

  • We have to be open-minded;
  • We have to listen to other people;
  • And: We need to learn what the future expects from us.

This is why we are so excited about what the team here at Columbia University has planned for the coming year. They will continue exploring the core topics and issues related to the “Extreme Cities Project”. And they will create rich informative scenarios for new ways of living in an urban environment.

Just look at what our common work in the “Experiments in Motion” has brought up so far. In “Beyond the Street” students have envisioned an individual mobility that uses new materials and technologies to leave the street-level and conquer the third dimension of the city. The same way New York’s buildings conquered the third dimension with the advent of steel beams and elevators.

In one project “Condensation City”, density is so complex, that the distinction between street and building is disappearing. The “Eco-Drones” project shows us that some mobility solutions might leave driving behind, and also the need for a driver. Instead drones will solve tasks flying autonomously. What project like these teach us is that we have the power to reinterpret urban space.

For us at Audi this kind of learning is not limited to the distant future. We realize that many of these changes, many of the answers to the five hypotheses depend on Audi cars and other solutions becoming much more connected, and much smarter.

Interacting with the data that the cities’ architecture will produce is going to be crucial.

From what planners tell me, in the next ten years cities might not change all that much to our eyes. But to our cars, they will become a very flexible environment, determined more by information than by concrete. Our cars will have to be able to participate in that data environment, and to add valuable information to it. They will become citizens in this infrastructure. And just like people, they should add something that makes the city better.

That’s why Audi has been leading in introducing the full internet connection to our cars – with Audi connect. It’s a great experience for the people who drive our cars.

But it’s even more important for the cities. We’re also teaching our cars to drive.

Audi is the first car manufacturer with a pilotless driving license in Nevada. It’s a first step, but it will allow us to create a new driving experience in an ever-denser grid.

Finally, we’re working hard on creating more space in the city, by sharing the existing space better than before. I can’t tell you more now. But I can tell you, the future will be bright.

Parallel to these activities, we will be working closely with the winners of the second Audi Urban Future Award, on the city dossier for Boston-Washington. By the end of this year we will be presenting the results to the public.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I want to thank everyone who has challenged us, motivated us, and joined us to think about a changed kind of mobility. We will continue to collaborate to actively shape the dialog with large metropolitan areas all over the world. And we will strive to motivate architects and city planners to further develop individual blueprints for future mobility.

Innovative ideas will be the drivers behind a new kind of “Vorsprung”– a new kind of advancement – that our brand has always cared about very deeply.

Thank you very much.

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